September 2009

I realize this is an age-old question for secular humanists, and the knee jerk reaction to the question is the answer: Both, stupid! But I think it would be interesting to know the priorities of the group, or at least those that spend time online.

This could be a long discussion, and much of the important debate is likely to come out as we go along, so let me be brief as devil’s advocate.

While the secular is what brought me to look at HAO (and HAC) over the years, it was the humanism that kept me near by. The advocacy for atheism is of interest philosophically, but less interesting as a practical measure in terms of everyday work.

Secularism and an insistence in the separation of church and state is not about preaching non-belief in a deity. Primarily it is about ensuring that non-believers (and other beliefs) have their democratic space and that public institutions do not advocate belief or non-belief. That is primarily a humanist and democratic project, not an “atheist” project.

Much of my work has been in the peace and disarmament area over the decades, or in global governance areas. During that time, I have found that there has been an ample contribution by both humanists and religious people that share common ground. In many cases the common ground has been virtually identical. I have never really had a conflict with a religious person working in these subject areas over a point of principle. (In fact the most recognizable and well-respected organization in the peace area in the country is Project Ploughshares, an ecumenical coalition of religious organizations.)

While on occasion, we might joke about philosophical positions, the discussion has always been civil and among friends.

So perhaps this subject is relevant in any discussion about merging HAO with another entity. Will the humanism be triumphant?

The most recent “Ask the Religious Experts” question strikes me as strange:

New Age religions or lifestyles tend to cater to the individual. Is something missing in the individual approach to religion?

I thought I would pose the question to our group not only to offer answers to the question asked, but to determine if it is even a fair question to ask. I am curious as to whether most new age lifestyles or religions are actually focused on the individual as the question claims. I am also skeptical of the second half of the question, because I think it could be argued that traditional religions are also very much centered around the individual as well. For example: many hardcore Christians in North America gravitate towards right wing political parties that espouse personal responsibility over social programs.

Does anyone have any thoughts on individualism and how it manifests itself differently when comparing religious people to secular humanists? Are the religious actually less individualistic than humanists and other new age groups?

From CRIPE, via Richard Thain, a letter to the editor printed in the Brantford (Ontario) Expositor:

School’s back in. Again, this year, my children will not be attending the closest publicly funded elementary school to our home. Instead, I will be loading them up in the car and driving them about one mile to the next closest school; a school which teaches exactly the same curriculum. Why? An ancient constitutional anomaly, written during a time when slavery still existed and when women could not vote, gives the Catholic school system in Ontario the absolute legal right to discriminate in admissions to elementary schools and in employment of teachers at all levels based solely on one’s religious beliefs.

In our case, the local Catholic board chose to deny admission to my children because of this. In some cases, if you are lucky enough to apply at an under-enrolled school, your non-Catholic children may be accepted because of the blessed enrolment grants that come with them. We all carry the same tax burden, but two thirds of Ontarians can legally be discriminated against because of their religion. Shame!

During our daily drive to school, we see numerous school buses. Many of these buses are transporting kids past one publicly funded elementary school in their neighbourhood to another one outside their neighbourhood. We are being asked to “save the planet” with pointless policies such as idling bylaws while this environmental travesty is allowed to continue. Shame!

It doesn’t need to be like this. With a simple bilateral agreement with Ottawa, Ontario can amend that section of the constitution that gives Catholic people in Ontario a separate publicly education system. With a single secular school system in place, thousands of school busses would be gone from the roads, tens of thousands of kids (including mine) would be walking to school, and, by ministry estimates, hundreds of millions of dollars a year would be saved.

Shame on all of us for allowing this to continue.

Peter W. Jones


The picture above is a statue located in Toronto in the gardens of a Czechoslovakian community center, designed to commemorate those that suffered under the Russian communist rule. I decided to scour the net to try an find a picture of it after reading this article in the Ottawa Citizen:

NCC board approves monument to victims of communism

Apparently the NCC has approved a proposal to build a statue in Ottawa that aims to represent the same issue. Many involved in the proposal are confused at the acceptance of the proposal due to an ongoing debate as to what it is to represent specifically. The key questions that are being struggled with are:

Is the statue, to represent and commemorate:

  1. People that suffered under communist rule?
  2. People that suffered under totalitarianism?
  3. Canada as a refuge for people fleeing oppressive regimes?
  4. All of the above?

Communism may be seen as a system that has led to atrocities in the past, but it is still a political viewpoint that is acceptable to have in Canada. We have a Marxist/Leninist Party in this country that is active. It has been pointed out that a national version of this statue undermines their party unfairly. It is particularly lame that the Citizen refers to this statue as:

…to commemorate the victims of some kind of communism.

This wording seems inappropriately vague. A national monument focused on victims of Communism should refer to the specific communist regimes directly as opposed to in general. One commenter wisely pointed out that communism is actually an economic system, not a political one. It is this problem that has lead the discussion towards the thing that actually facilitates the oppression we are all opposed to: totalitarianism.

The problem with turning to totalitarianism is that it is not exclusive to communist systems. Many have suffered under fascist rule, and many under theocratic rule. Canada has made itself available as refuge for people coming from all of these scenarios. Would it be acceptable to have a statue in the capital that symbolized the oppression of people under totalitarian Islamic theocracies? I ask you to imagine the uproar that would ensue over such a thing. Taking it even further, it would not be false to say that in the past that Christianity was also the source of totalitarian oppression making this slope even more slippery.

Designs for the national version of this statue have not yet been presented. Once the exact purpose of the statue is determined a competition will be held, and the best design will be selected.

I would like to submit humbly that I would not like to see it inspired by the Toronto statue. While the Toronto statue has been erected in a particular community park, I do not think it would be appropriate for use in conveying a national position.

The Toronto statue is inspired by the image of Christ on the cross. While the intention was likely metaphorical, I feel that this seems to imply that Christianity is the force that helped people overcome this oppression by fighting it or providing the refuge from it. This is very gracious to the christian, but unfortunately, most secular citizens of Canada also strongly oppose totalitarianism, and have also played a large role in combating it. Many other Canadians from faith backgrounds other than Christianity have also done the same. I think a national version of the Toronto statue would be more than inappropriate, it would be insulting.

Commemorating 100 million people that perished is a cause worth pursuing, but a national statue built to represent it will inevitably send two messages. The first will be one of sympathy and compassion for those that suffered, and the other is a vilification of those that oppressed. It is crucial that the first message illustrates the compassion of all Canadians, and that the second message be aimed at the right villain, regardless how specific or abstract that villain might end up being.

Surprising to many, Israel doesn’t currently have a constitution. While the first constituent assembly was elected in 1949 in Israel, no constitution was agreed upon.  The problem is: How can Israel be “Jewish” and democratic at the same time?

A number of basic laws were developed by subsequent Knessets (parliaments). For instance, one Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty (1992), states “The purpose of this Basic Law is to protect human dignity and liberty, in order to establish in a Basic Law the values of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.”

The Law of Return (1950) states that “Every Jew has the right to immigrate to the country.” The 1970 amendment gives non-Jews who are either “children or grandchildren of a Jew, the spouse of a Jew or the spouse of a child or grandchild of a Jew (on condition that this person was not previously a Jew who had knowingly converted to another faith)” the right to immigrate to Israel and become a citizen.

However, the primary intent of the Law of Return is to maintain Israel as predominantly Jewish.

There is a parliamentary working group called the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee of the Knesset. They have prepared an official draft constitution for consideration.

The committee notes, in reference to the Law of Return that “It has been suggested that an immigration policy which explicitly gives priority to one ethnic or religious group cannot be justified in liberal democratic terms, and is incompatible with Israel’s mandate as a democratic state.”

The committee discussion also notes that: “There is also fierce debate surrounding the question of “Who is a Jew”, and by extension, who is eligible to make aliyah under the Law of Return. At present, the definition is based on Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws: the right of Return is granted to any individual with one Jewish grandparent, or who is married to someone with one Jewish grandparent. As a result, thousands of people with no meaningful connection to the Jewish people theoretically have the right to immigrate.”

The debate within Israel over whether its constitution should refer to the state as “Jewish” or “democratic” is a healthy one, and the outcome of that debate is not certain. See:

So how is a Jew defined?

“Orthodox Jews trace the Jewish blood line through the mother (matrilineal descent) while Reform Jews also accept Jewish parentage on the father’s side (patrilineal descent) as valid, so long as the child is “raised Jewish.”
Orthodox Judaism considers Jewishness intact if someone is born of a Jewish mother, even if a person converts to another religion. The Reform branch does not agree. They are of the view, for instance, that “…anyone who claims that Jesus is their savior is no longer a Jew…”

The sources for these definitions of Jewishness are primarily religious, not secular:
The matrilineal descent concept is found in: Deuteronomy 7:3-4 and Ezra 10:3.
The patrilineal argument is found in Genesis 48:15-20 and Deuteronomy 10:15.

Wikipedia’s entry on “Who is a Jew” notes that: “In the registering of “nationality” on Israeli Teudat Zehut (“identity card”), which is controlled by the Ministry of the Interior, a person had to meet the traditional halakhic definition to be registered as a “Jew”. However, in a small number of cases the Supreme Court of Israel has ordered the Interior Ministry to register as Jews individuals who did not meet that definition.

“Or there is the problem of immigrants recognized as Jewish by the Registry Office and not by the Halacha, for instance those ‘who have converted to Judaism, particularly outside Israel, by synagogues not recognized by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel’.”

Halakha is the collective body of Jewish religious law, including biblical, talmudic and rabbinic law, as well as customs and traditions.

The justification for the (Israeli) Law of Return is also not a secular pronouncement, but is found, advocates of  it will claim, in the Book of Psalms (Psalms: 137). “How can we sing the songs of the LORD  while in a foreign land?”

Retired Deputy Attorney-Genera Shlomo Guberman writes that: “During almost 20 centuries of exile [since destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE], Jews prayed three times a day for return to their ancestral homeland. This longing to return to the Land of Israel also became a major topic in Jewish literature and thought. It was only in the 19th century that the return to Israel found a political expression in the Zionist movement.”

The Land of Israel, according to the Hebrew Bible, is the region “promised by God” to the descendants of Abraham and Jacob. “Mainstream Jewish tradition regards the promise as applying to all Jews, including converts and their descendants.”

“The first definition of the promised land (Genesis 15:13-21) calls it “this land”. In Genesis 15, this land is promised to Abraham’s “descendants”, through his son Isaac, while in Deuteronomy 1:8, it is promised explicitly to the Israelites.” ["See, I have given you this land. Go in and take possession of the land that the LORD swore he would give to your fathers—to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—and to their descendants after them."]

Also see: Numbers 34:1-15, Samuel 13:19,  Book of Ezekiel, Gospel of Matthew. The “Promised Land” is defined geographically in Exodus 23:31 “which describes borders as marked by the Red Sea… the “Sea of the Philistines” i.e the Mediterranean, and the “River,” possibly the Euphrates), the traditional furthest extent of the Kingdom of David, or the Jordan River.”  And so on.

For more details, see:


For the full collection of maps, comparing the original UN partition proposal to the current demarcation of Israel, the occupied territories and their settlements, see:

Territories occupied by Israel since 1967:

Original Partition plan:

Israeli settlements in the occupied territories (coloured magenta):

“Biblical Israel”:

Xander is starting up our campus outreach with Carleton University Freethought. The group stands on it’s own but is supported by the HAO. This morning Xander and I picked up a brand new promotional banner that we had made for the group:

If you are a Twitter user and want to keep up with highlights from the Carleton University Freethought Table, follow Xander : @PareidoliaX

There is also a Facebook Group for Carleton University Freethought located here.

by: Earl Doherty

I have always found it difficult to engage in a calm and reasoned discussion with anyone who has taken a strongly biased position on the Palestinian side of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the recent issue of Humanist Perspectives, devoted in great part to that question, was so over the top and so outrageously prejudiced that I felt ashamed to have even an indirect association with it. Had I been Jewish, I would certainly have resigned from our organization immediately and canceled any subscription I might have had to the magazine. In fact, I would be surprised if we could preserve any Jewish membership following that publication.

I know that humanists have a reputation for championing the underdog, but I thought we also had a reputation for fairness and rationality, especially the latter. There was nothing rational about the opinions expressed in this virulent anti-Israeli diatribe, and no consideration for seeking to understand, let alone to lay out, both sides of the situation. The tone was set in the opening editorial, indeed with its very title, “The Evolution of Evil,” which in its demonization of Israel reminded me of Christian views of Jews in the Middle Ages. I kept waiting to read that Israeli Jews still clandestinely sacrifice children (Palestinian, of course) and drink their blood in midnight rituals.

I want to make it clear that I do not and never have tried to whitewash Israel. The Israeli government and many of its citizens have not been blameless, and abuses have certainly occurred. But nothing is as black and white, good and evil, as was portrayed in that issue of Humanist Perspectives. Scarcely a note of censure in any way was sounded against the Palestinians and their leadership for the past seven decades. Atrocities were excused, even justified. The firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and Hezbollah was “in desperation” (an endorsed quote from Anton Kuerti, who may be one of the world’s great pianists but is hardly one of its great level-headed thinkers, despite being Jewish himself). The topic of suicide bombings wherein hundreds of Israel’s citizens were murdered while riding buses and dining in restaurants was passed over with barely a quiver. The history of the Jews leading to the endorsement and establishment of the state of Israel in an entirely legal manner by the UN was ignored.

I am not seeking to promote the “official” Israeli government line. But I know what history and impressions I have absorbed over half a century of following the situation in the Middle East, and I will speak only from that personal point of view. I have no Jewish relatives, I have virtually no Jewish friends, but I think I have been able to bring a degree of rationality to my judgment of the issue which has been decidedly lacking not just in the magazine’s editorial board but among many of my fellow humanists. And not only in Ottawa and Canada. I have encountered much of the same attitude in places in the United States; indeed, I know it is rampant around the world.

I have no objection to acknowledging that groups within Israel itself work to mitigate the treatment of Palestinians and the injustices which are perceived, often justifiably, in government policy toward them. But I am willing to venture that those groups are also capable of recognizing fault and responsibility on the other side. And they are one voice in a multi-faceted democracy, this being one of the benefits Israel enjoys which its Palestinian neighbors do not, whose people can even suffer summary execution by fellow citizens for daring to express any understanding of Arab complicity and a share in the responsibility for a very woeful situation.

It was not unusual to see an appeal in one of the HP articles to the notorious Deir Yassin massacre by the Irgun in 1948 (a virtually singular event), as the Jews were struggling to inaugurate the scarcely-dry UN mandate and protect it and themselves from neighbors who were seeking to destroy them. But decades of prior Arab attacks on Jewish settlers in Palestine, including bombings and terrorist atrocities, seem not to have been taken into account by the author of that article as having had any influence on such an event, although he was unable to avoid admitting that the Deir Yassin massacre was not premeditated and more or less “just happened.” He also admitted that it was part of a counter-offensive to Palestinian attacks on Jewish settlements. And in the course of that war, it is hardly surprising that the new state of Israel ended up with more territory than it had been granted, as a means of establishing that state with a greater degree of security and resources. Wars are often conducted, especially those forced upon one, with an eye to survival.

If we are going to maintain that the Jews had no right to a “Zionist” movement, one seeking to establish a renewed presence in their ancestral homeland, to flee as refugees from many countries in which for centuries they had endured persecution and even slaughter long before Hitler’s ‘final solution,’ we might as well toss out every international law and agreement about refugees, immigration and the movement of peoples, which humanists in other contexts are usually fully supportive of. Zionism per se is not “the real problem.” The problem has been that seemingly in every other case but this one, such refugee and immigrant movements are accepted and even approved of. Modern Moslem immigration into western Europe is a good example, despite the changes it is already bringing to that society. Indeed, we ourselves are part of a culture which in the not too distant past came here and moved into other peoples’ lands, often fleeing persecution, starvation or simply seeking living space. The entire history of the world has proceeded on such movements. It is unfortunate that they are sometimes accompanied by lack of consideration for native populations, by abuses and even atrocities, as our own history attests. But I doubt we will ever see articles in HP advocating that Europeans should never have come here, or supporting anyone who might advocate that we all ought to be driven back into the sea.

This, of course, is what Israeli Jews have faced for over sixty years, coming off the greatest atrocity in world history in which 6 million of them were murdered for no other reason than that they were Jewish. (And please don’t cite other figures of non-Jews killed as though this somehow excuses or lessens the atrocity the Jews endured, an atrocity that was simply the culmination of centuries of the same treatment.) Indeed, we have failed to take into account the entire atmosphere of the time following the Second World War and the Holocaust. I have no doubt that the UN was partially motivated by a sense of guilt. And well they should have been. I also have no doubt that Jews who managed to escape the Holocaust and fled to Palestine were quite ready to fight for what they had been granted by the international community, and may not have worried too much about keeping within strict Geneva guidelines, especially when everyone around them was trying to add to the Holocaust total. I imagine that all this does things to one’s psyche, but none of this was taken into account by the writers in HP.

And of course it did not stop with the 1948 war. In response to the criticism that Israel has largely ignored or resisted complying with UN resolutions about giving up conquered territories in the Six-Day War, we could ask: if Egypt, Jordan and Syria had been victorious instead, what would the likelihood be that the UN would have issued resolutions enjoining the victorious Arab states to surrender everything they had conquered in overrunning Israel? It is hardly likely, in fact, that Israel would have continued to exist, and how much would the world community have objected (other than the U.S.), let alone interfered, with the inevitable destruction of the Jewish state, accompanied by who knows what further Holocaust?

We too easily forget that in 1967 the Arabs were poised to attack Israel for that very purpose, and did so again in the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Are we justified in blaming Israel for holding onto the Golan Heights or East Jerusalem, in the continuing face of neighbors still desiring its destruction? (It did give up the Sinai in response to a reasonable acceptance of their existence by Anwar Sadat and Egypt.) In that light, should Israel simply, and simplistically, be accused of “illegal occupation of Arab lands,” with no understanding or allowance accorded that situation? Should we be surprised that Jewish Israel would adopt a “Never Again” (and maybe a “To hell with the lot of you”) attitude in response to a world that cuts them no slack, which holds them to impossible standards it applies to no one else, a world from which they could count on little help if it came to their own survival—just as European Jews shamefully got no help from it during the War?

Yes, abuses in regard to settlements in occupied territory have taken place, as well as at ground level against Palestinians because of security concerns, many of which have not been pretty. And there are always extremists who will act in extremist ways (something not restricted to Israel). But when your citizens are being blown up by suicide fanatics, when rockets are being lobbed into your cities and countryside, that too, I imagine, has an impact on the Israeli psyche. Do our magazine contributors think that such measures—even “in desperation”—are somehow justified in international law, let alone in a humanist world? (And apparently there is no “desperation” allowed to the Israelis.) Should we be championing governments that instead of spending money on its citizens to better their dismal lot, wastes it on smuggling and building up stocks of weapons which are only used to destabilize the situation and worsen the lot of their people? Should we respect and support terrorist forces in both Gaza and Lebanon that have deliberately used their own population as human shields, inviting military retaliation and defensive actions which guarantee to result in casualties among their own people, in a deliberate design to sway world opinion their way? Regrettably, the world gets suckered in every time.

And that includes our media. Remember the alleged “massacre” of civilians in Jenin, when Israel was finally driven to respond to an ongoing glut of suicide bombings by invading refugee camps in the West Bank to destroy bomb-making factories and stop the recruitment of bombers? The world’s media jumped all over it, swallowing it whole, until a UN investigation revealed that no such massacre had taken place, that indeed the Israeli army in those operations had lost more soldiers than Palestinian non-combatants had died in Jenin. No retraction ever appeared on the front pages, if it appeared anywhere. That, too, I am sure, affects the Israeli psyche and their attitude toward world opinion. As for building walls and destroying orchards in the process in order to block that tide of murder, what community would not feel justified in taking such measures to protect itself?

Another criticism offered in an HP article was the continued presence of Palestinian refugee camps in surrounding Arab countries. But where does the responsibility for that lie? Israel has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees since its inception and made a place for them in their society. What has prevented the Palestinian refugees from being absorbed into those Arab states? It has been the policy of Arab governments who wish to keep them in their miserable condition as a political tool in the PR campaign against Israel. Does the UN pass resolutions pressuring those governments to alleviate the plight of the camps, something they are quite capable of doing? I am not aware of any.

One could hardly believe that Humanist Perspectives would portray Yasser Arafat as virtually another Dag Hammerskjold, some kind of spotless diplomat with clean hands who bent over backwards with entirely reasonable demands to gain his people a state the Israeli government should have had no reason to refuse. One of those “reasonable demands” was and continues to be the so-called right of return, that all Palestinians and their descendants who were displaced in the 1948 war be allowed to return to the state of Israel. We all know what that would accomplish: the destruction of Israel from within, as its Jewish citizens would be swamped by its Arab ones. Arafat’s stance, which represented the unrealistic demands of the Palestinians as a whole, was a clear-cut statement of refusal to accept the very existence of Israel, since it would soon be converted into another Arab state, with no guarantees for Jewish security and certainly not for the preservation of a Jewish identity.

Whether they realize it or not, the logical bottom line if one pursues the arguments of many pro-Palestinians inevitably leads to the position that Israel has no right to exist, that a state with a Jewish identity is not to be countenanced. Is that the position of our HP? A state that has a right to exist has a right to defend itself, it has a right even to try to resist the setting up of a state on its borders which refuses to guarantee that it will not continue to pursue its eradication or engage in terrorist activities against it. The two-state solution will only work when all parties adopt the principle of two states living in peace and security and mutual acceptance. So far that criterion has not been met on several parts of the Palestinian front. None of this was taken into consideration by the writers of these articles.

It is certainly natural and necessary to feel sympathy and even horror at what is often real suffering on the part of the ordinary Palestinian in this ongoing conflict. But to turn a blind eye to all the factors and responsibilities which bring this about solves nothing and certainly will not alleviate them. In fact, by adopting the kind of rabidly biased attitude apparent in the last issue of HP, we encourage elements on the Palestinian side to hold onto their “death to Israel” disposition, and elements on the Israeli side to maintain their reactions and counter-measures against that disposition, as well as the very abuses that have been lamented. And thus the conflict, along with the misery, continues.

Regardless of what one thinks about the right or wrong of it, Israel exists and it will not go away. History cannot be rewritten or erased. The Palestinians, and those who govern them, have to learn to deal with that, to accept it and go on with their lives. They might find that their lot and their future would improve considerably, and they might even get their state. As for supporters of the Palestinians in the West, they would be better advised to adopt and promote a more balanced and pragmatic approach, rather than continue to demonize one side while absolving the other. The latter is hardly the humanist way.

Richard Dawkins is coming to Toronto for the launch of his new book “The Greatest Show on Earth”. If anyone in the HAO would be interested in organizing a group outing to the event, please let us know. I cannot attend the event myself because of existing plans, but if anyone does attend, I would love to get some pictures and some coverage to post here after it happens.

Appearance Details:

10$ general admission.
Visit or 1-888-222-6608

Tuesday, September 29, 2009
7:00pm – 8:00pm
Isabel Bader Theatre
93 Charles Street
Toronto, ON

Here is an extract from one of the chapters of the upcoming book.

You can pre-order the book here

A very interesting decision came down from the Quebec Superior Court recently that should be of interest to Humanists. In September of 2008, Quebec introduced a controversial new mandatory course into the school system that teaches ethics and morality and covers all of the main religions with a presence in the province. This course is taught from grade 1 to grade 11. Many parents banded together to challenge this course in the courts on the grounds that they believed it infringed on their religious freedoms. The court disagreed:

In light of all the evidence presented, the court does not see how the … course limits the plaintiff’s freedom of conscience and of religion for the children when it provides an overall presentation of various religions without obliging the children to adhere to them.

Justice Jean-Guy Dubois

The National Post has a great column explaining the details of this decision and the controversy surrounding it.

This issue will be interesting to keep an eye on. Dan Dennet (a well known philosopher) prescribed exactly this type of course for young people in his book “Breaking The Spell”. He pointed out that the best way to combat fundamentalism in religion is to make it mandatory to teach more about all religions to young people. He pointed out that it would have a natural secularizing effect and help build more respect and understanding between people of different faiths. He also pointed out the irony that the people most opposed to this type of policy are the extremely religious. These people tend to call for more religion to be taught in schools as long it is only theirs.

Below is a great video of a presentation at the TED conference in 2006 where Dennet talks about this issue, and spends some time rebutting the presenter that was up before him: Rick Warren. It is well worth the watch.

See: Part 1 and Part 2. And I forgot to mention that Seanna took all the pictures.

As we stumble in a daze out of the Hall of the Bible Comix, we come to a large open room, and find…

At Last, Some Science!

Well, sort of. Back at the beginning, the Funhouse (I refuse to call it a museum any more, not even in scare quotes) informed us that it is the Bible, rather than the evidence of the present day, that gives the key to unravelling the past. But now we get a little bit of back-pedalling:

DSC_8322postOK, the present isn’t the “key” to the past, but apparently it will give us “hints” about it. Basically, this is where they show us what they mean by interpreting evidence according to the Bible, and also try to show how their interpretation is actually better than that of “mainstream” science. There are quite a few posters like the one above in this room — pictures with short captions making some claim — and examining a few of the claims thereon gives the flavour of the place.

All the points on this poster originate with the Institute for Creation Research (for which Ken Ham worked, before he left to found AiG), and are long debunked. Take #2: Rocks from an 11-year-old lava dome at Mt. St. Helens date by the potassium-argon method to 350,000 years? (The implication being that K-Ar dating doesn’t work, so just ignore all those old-earth geologists when they tell you this rock is umpteen mega-years old). Well, as a matter of fact, this is indeed “an example of radioisotope dating difficulties” — namely that, for very young samples K-Ar dating gets tricky, and is easily thrown off by contamination. In other words, it’s a “difficulty” that geochronologists already know all about, and competent ones know how to avoid. This particular claim traces to the work of the ICR’s Steve Austin (who actually does possess an earned Ph.D. in Geology from a real university, unlike many other self-styled creation “scientists”). Here’s how he came by that date:

First, Austin sent young, low-potassium (and therefore very low in radiogenic argon) rocks to Geochron Laboratories, which specifically states in its advertisements: “We are not in a position to analyze samples expected to be younger than 2 M.Y.” (Geotimes 1995-7). He did it anyway and specifically states in his paper that “No information was given to the lab concerning where the dacite came from or that the rock has a historically known age (Austin 1997)”. This puts potentially large error-bars on the data and also opens his research to ethical questions…..

Second, Austin may have dated some of the solid material that came up with the lava rather than the lava itself. Austin also mentioned that the lava contained xenoliths – pieces of solid rock that came up with the lava. Although Austin stated that he was careful to remove the xenoliths, we have no proof that he succeeded, and he apparently made no effort to date the xenoliths separately. Austin’s date was published in a “peer-reviewed” journal (Creation Ex Nihilo Technical Journal) only in the sense that the journal was published by other creationists. The peer-review process of a mainstream geology journal would have demanded that he explain his unusual results more completely. Therefore, contamination by rock that is 350,000 years old or older remains a possibility.

In other words: Austin’s results are an example of the GIGO principle. Note, by the way, that the FAQ excerpted above was written in 1998 — and yet over a decade later, Ham’s House of Hee-Haw is uncritically repeating Austin’s long-exploded claims. That alone tells you all you need to know about AiG’s commitment to scientific accuracy.

They’re All Wet

Let’s move on to points #3 and #4: Creationists love to point at the topography that the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens created in the Toutle River valley below, as an example of how catastrophic events can deposit and erode large amounts of material in a short time. What they’re after with this line of argument, is an explanation for how the Biblical Flood can create this within…well a lot less than several million years “mainstream” science says it took:


The way they want to do that is by having some big lakes of left-over Flood water drain rapidly through the area:

DSC_8329postTrying to use the Mount St. Helens topography as a scaled-down model for the formation of the Grand Canyon ignores significant differences between the two sites (eg. the unconsolidated volcanic ash and explosion debris that Helen dropped into the valley when she blew her top vs. the limestone, sandstone and shale that the Grand Canyon is cut into). But (like most creationist claims) this has all been gone over before by actual experts: so go read this debunking by a real geologist. (It’s worth noting in passing that, if you Google “little grand canyon”, you will find a dozen or so places around the US which bear that name. However, almost the only people that apply the name to the feature below Mount St. Helens are creationists: the term seems to have been invented by — guess who? — Steve Austin of the ICR).

For comparison, this is what happens when a large lake bursts through a dam catastrophically:

ChanneledScablandsDoesn’t look much like the Grand Canyon, does it? That’s part of an area in eastern Washington state known as the Channeled Scablands (here is a link to Google Maps so you can explore the place yourself). These landforms were created towards the end of the Ice Age when large lakes of glacial meltwater burst through their confining dams and swept over the landscape at high velocity.

It is worth noting that when geologist  J. Harlen Bretz first proposed a catastrophic origin for the unusual features of the Scablands, he encountered serious opposition from the scientific community. Some of this opposition arose from the traditional preference (going back to Lyell) for uniformitarian interpretations of earth history. (Though not all opposition was simple stubbornness — Bretz initially had no credible source of water for his floods. It fell to another worker, Joseph Hardee, to discover evidence for the prehistoric glacial lakes and ice dams). Creationists make much of science’s “dogmatic” preference for uniformitarianism, claiming that it is by this prejudice that their Biblical catastrophism is rejected. But Bretz’s eventual vindication demonstrates that science will accept unconventional “catastrophist” theories when the evidence supports them. (A more recent example of such open-mindedness is the acceptance of the asteroid-impact hypothesis as a main cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary mass extinction).

Volcanic Vollies

Let’s look at a final example before we leave the Flood Room:

DSC_8330postThe claims on these posters are delightfully devoid of references that would make it easy to track down the source of the claim, but this one almost certainly refers to yet more work by our friend Steve Austin of the ICR.

Background: The Uinkaret volcanic field lies near the north rim of the Grand Canyon (dark area on this GoogleMaps link), and consists of about half-a-dozen cones and associated lava flows. The area (ie. according to those damned uniformitarian evilutionist atheist scientists) became volcanically active about 3 million years ago, with the most recent eruption being less than 1000 years ago. Some of the lava flows spill over into the canyon, and would have temporarily dammed the river until they were eroded through. Simplified, the stratigraphy looks something like this (reproduced from here):

grand-canyonNow here’s the problem: the accepted age of the Cardenas Basalt (down in the blue area), according to radioisotope methods, is about 1.1 billion years. But Dr. Austin, using a method called rubidium-strontium isochron, dated the overlying, and therefore presumably younger lavas (yellow layer) to 1.3 billion years — 200 million years older than the rock it overlies! How can that be? As in the case of the Mount St. Helens lava dome discussed above, the implication is: radiometric dating yields obviously bogus results, therefore it must be crap, so don’t believe those old-earth dates, QED! (The suggestion that therefore radioactive decay rates were faster in the past appears to be the Creation Museum’s Funhouse’s own gloss on the claim).

Except, except….as documented in the excellent FAQ from which that diagram was taken, Austin’s sampling method violated the requirements of the isochron method. Instead of taking all samples from a single flow (and therefore all of the same age), his samples came from five different flows, yielding (once again) GIGO results. (Why this matters is a bit technical; if you want to understand it, first get the isochron dating FAQ under your belt, then come back to the Grand Canyon FAQ). You’d think someone with a Ph.D. in geology might know better, n’est-ce pas?

(For the geo-curious: See also Chris Stassen’s FAQ on the constancy of radioactive decay rates. In fact, I recommend the entire talkorigins archive as your first resort when confronted with creationist pseudoscience).

Here endeth today’s geology lesson.

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